Sam Stemm: The Fever Caught Me

First Radio Job: My first paid station was with my current station, then known as WOKZ. This was just before I graduated from college, and they needed someone to do sports and play-by-play. I dropped out of school to take the job. I did sports in the morning, and then played beautiful music on the FM in the afternoons. That was back in 1978. It was a radio job. I was thrilled.

Current Job: Owner/President/General Manager of Metroplex Communications, WBGZ-AM/Alton, IL.  That means I’m doing all of the same stuff I did back in 1978.

Your school? SIU Edwardsville. I did eventually graduate.

Typical work day: You deal with what you have to when you get into the office. I’m in at about 9am, and check in with all of the various departments to see what’s going on. In terms of a typical day … my days don’t flow that way. I handle what’s on the agenda. I’m a list maker. I’ve typically got a list of things to do on my desk, and when they need to be done.

What are you reading? Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, by Sam Tanenhaus. That’s on the heels of reading No Ordinary Time, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

A few years ago I was gifted an iPad, and I didn’t think I’d have any use for it. One day, I wished I had a good book to read, so I tried to download a book on my iPad. I found that I really liked reading that way, but you don’t actually see the book lying there. You don’t see the title.

I don’t have to worry about finding good light. If I want to make the font bigger, I push a button. Now, the only problem I have is that’s it hard to read outside when it’s bright.

Best vacation you ever had: A tour of Alaska. When I got home, I got to thinking, I traveled on a flat-bottomed boat on a river. I flew in a monoplane and landed on a glacier. I rode the train. I rode in a dog sled.  And then the standard forms of transportation: car, bus, boat. I experienced Alaska in just about every form of transportation, including hiking, and loved every minute of it. There was natural beauty all around.

Favorite restaurant: It used to be The Mississippi Half Step restaurant in Grafton, on the banks of the river. I loved going there with family and friends, but they closed last year. Now, you could just about pick any restaurant on The Hill in St Louis, the Italian neighborhood that’s renowned for the restaurants run by the families that originally founded them. It’s hard to find a bad meal on The Hill.

Favorite beverage: Single malt scotch

Website: www.altondailynews.com

Contact Info: sam@wbgzradio.com, 618-465-3535

“I look forward to Monday.”

 

What got you started in radio? At SIU Edwardsville, I worked at the campus radio station, WSIE and did a lot of play by play and on air work. Those were my first opportunities to be on the air. I was one of those guys, if I wasn’t in class, I was hanging out at the radio station, soaking it all up.

When I graduated from High School, my goal was to be an electrical engineer … and then I took my first calculus course. Then, I decided I wasn’t going to be an engineer.

Stemm, SamMy academic advisory kept telling me that if I wasn’t going to be an engineer, I needed to choose another major, so I chose journalism and took several entry level courses in journalism. I found I wasn’t really as enamored with writing as I thought I would be, but there was crossover in the journalism courses to mass communications … and my buddies were talking about hanging out at the radio station. I thought perhaps I’d rather be a broadcaster than a sportswriter. Ultimately, I changed my major to Mass Communications.

Where did you grow up? Alton, IL. I consider myself very fortunate that I own and operate the only radio station in my hometown. I never set out to be an owner, or in management, but those opportunities presented themselves, I embraced them, and the rest is history.

I never achieved my goal. I intended to be the next Harry Carey or Jack Buck, but I think my default worked out pretty well.

How did you transition to management? I spent 2 years working at WOKZ as the Sports Director, but not making very much money. Because I had worked part time while I was at SIUE, I was 24 as I was graduating. Two years later, still making just above minimum wage at this little stand-alone radio station. The people I was went to school with were buying homes and new cars, and I was struggling to feed myself. Essentially, I was recruited by the district manager of Equitable Life Insurance. They target people with people skills. He convinced me that I could make more money selling insurance, and not wanting to trek across the country for another radio job, I decided to try insurance sales.

Small Market StoriesI did that for a couple of years, made lots of money, and hated every minute of it.

There weren’t a lot of radio jobs, but I found a job in a local hospital in their health education department. It was the early 80s, and they were downloading closed circuit videos from something called the Hospital Satellite Network … continuing education courses for doctors, nurses, and affiliated professions. My radio background set me up to handle the technology. I was happy as a lark.

But, the healthcare industry started to change, and in ’87 they pulled the plug on that program. At the same time, the ownership of the radio station had changed. The guy they had running the station tried to recruit me, but I told him my radio days were behind me. I thought I’d go to St Louis and find a hospital that needed my skills and experience.

But, the station GM was persistent. He asked me to come in for an interview, and I agreed to that as a practice interview – it had been several years since I had been on an interview, and thought the practice would be good for me.

I walked in the door to the radio station, and the fever caught me. I remembered how much I loved Radio. I talked with him, and he offered me the job on the spot. I’ve been here since 1987.

How did you transition into ownership? I started with the title of PD. I was pretty much the OM; I was the GM’s right hand man. In 1990, I was promoted to GM. I started buying stock in the station a year later, and gradually started buying out the previous owners of the station.

I can’t imagine anything I’d rather be doing.

Every thought of expanding beyond your one AM? AT this point in my career, I am not sure I would want to be any bigger.  Earlier this year, we put an FM translator on the air, and that’s been almost like starting a new radio station. It’s got a lot bigger footprint than the AM, and you can actually hear it at night. Over the last 4 or 5 years, I’ve worked diligently to find a translator. It was June of last year that I found one that I thought might work, and we started the transition, and got it on the air 1/12/15. That’s been very satisfying, and it creates a lot more opportunity for us.

Our format is news/talk, and we do tons of high school sports. One of the complaints had been, “It’s great you do all that, but we can’t hear it.” We serve about a half dozen communities: Alton, Godfrey, Bethalto, Wood River, East Alton, Roxanna … but if you got too far away from the AM transmitter, it just wasn’t a listenable signal. Now, with the FM, it is.

How does your format work? Daytime is mostly live & local. The morning show runs 5a – 9a. Our first local newscast is at 5am. Morning & afternoon drive, we do two newscasts an hour. We do tons of local news. We do local news headlines followed by national & world news, and then a 20 minute news block at the bottom of the hour. Lots of news, local features … we have the garage sale of the airwaves 9-10. Our news director hosts a local talk hour at 10a, and our other news guy hosts an hour at 11a. We do local news.

We have 11 hours of live & local every weekday. We carry Dave Ramsey, Clark Howard and Salem programming overnight, and then Doug Stephan 3-5am. We concentrate our resources on daytime, because radio is a daytime medium. Weekends, we’re live and local, 6a-1p, and then are syndicated except for when we have sports. We do high school football with 4 local games every week, plus University of Illinois football and basketball.

How many high schools do you follow? We concentrate on 5 local high schools. One of the 5, we’re carrying all 9 of their games, 2 were doing 8 games, and 2 were doing 6 games. When we get into basketball, it’s even more complicated, as we do boys and girls games – 10 teams – and we even it out as much as we can. Typically, we do about 150 high school games a year between football, boy’s & girl’s basketball, boy’s baseball and girl’s softball.

No volleyball? No, there’s not much excitement here for volleyball. Same with soccer. I tried that back in the ‘90s, we started doing it, and ultimately we thought sponsors would emerge when they heard the quality of our broadcasts. It never caught on. We’ll air anything if we can sell it.

Do you podcast the games? Yes. We stream the games as we air them. That’s quite a dilemma right now. With 4 games on a Friday night, one is live, one is delayed and the other 2 are recorded for playback on Saturday. We could stream all 4 games on Friday night, but it’s my observation that people get more excited about a game that’s broadcast, even when it’s delayed 18 hours. I’m not sure I could maintain my levels of sponsorship with more streaming and less on air. So, we stream every game we air, but not until after we air it. At this point, we have 10 years of archives for games. It’s amazing how many times people go back and listen to games 6 or 8 years ago.

We used to get requests all of the time to dub copies of games. Since we started streaming and archiving them, though, all of that ended.

Is all of the streaming free? Yes. We have ads on the site, and there are pre-roll ads & such that we sell. The original ads still run in the podcast.

So you can hear the Labor Day Special from 10 years ago? What’s really scary is when the advertisers are still running today the same ads they were running 10 years ago. I go back and chastise the account rep, and they always say they’ve asked the client, but they really like the ad they’re running. What do I care, if they’re still paying their bill? I know they should be changing their ad every couple weeks, but….

What are you doing on the tech side? We don’t do a lot of remotes, because we do so many ball games on weekends. We haven’t figured out how to do a remote in a ballgame.

WBGZ-logo-black, StemmWe built new studios in 1997. The beauty of that was that everything was new. We moved an old reel to reel, because we needed that in 1997. I’ve been pretty fastidious at keeping up the equipment and replacing things as we go.

HD? No.

What do you put on the website? Everything. We developed our website with a local company, and they’re now selling it to other stations. 10 years ago, the local daily newspaper started a website and were posting a couple of stories a day. My fear was that if we didn’t do something online … back then , no one had a crystal ball and what would happen with website. Publications said you had to be online to compete, it’s the 21st century … so, in part, just playing defense, since we gave our news away anyway, I decided to put all of the news on there, and make the newspaper look bad since they were only putting a couple of stories up every day.

I told them I wanted it to look like a newspaper. We called it the Alton daily News. Every story on the air is on the website as well … there’s even bonus material. If we have a news story that where we interviewed local officials for 7 minutes, but only use an 18 second sound bite, then in the broadcast we point people back to the website to hear the complete interview.

On the website, you may see we post audio from our talk shows. We put the latest newscast, sportscast and obituaries there. Those are all available on demand.

You make money on the website? I wouldn’t say it’s a huge revenue source. Truthfully, we haven’t tried real hard because I believe our core business is radio. Everything we do in terms of trying to monetize some other aspect, such as the website or streaming … that takes us away from the focus of selling radio.

Radio is still the most powerful medium to get results for advertisers.

When we sell the website or streaming, more often than not we’re just cannibalizing dollars that would have gone into the radio station anyway. I’m not convinced that putting more money on the website will help an advertiser more than putting the money on the station.

We do upsell: for another $50 a month, we’ll put a banner up for you. We generate a little bit that way. More often than not, we’re bonusing advertisers that increase they’re spending with us. It’s the bonus that we give to advertisers. We don’t give them on-air inventory for bonuses.

The website, it’s not a huge revenue generator. It’s something we know we have to do to be viewed as full service. Truthfully, it’s so automated, it’s not costing us much. We didn’t add staff, we just do it as a part of our work day.

Social media? Our staff keeps up our Facebook page. We keep doing it, but I’m not sure it’s worth it. If our target was 18-25, it might be different, but we do keep our Facebook page up. We do have a twitter account; I tweet once in a while. We don’t do much other than Facebook, though.

Do you still do play by play? Some. I broadcast my alma mater’s football games, I’ve done that since 1987. I don’t do much else unless I’m really needed to fill in for someone. Every Friday, I do a 2 hour open line with our news director.

What do you do outside of the office? What’s fun? I hesitate, because I enjoy what I do so much, sometimes I look forward to Monday, because I love what I do so much.

I do have a vacation home in Florida. I try and get down there 5 or 6 times a year. I play golf, get away and relax a little bit. Here, it’s Cardinal baseball, where I’ve got a 10-game season pass. I used to play more golf, but I’m busy now doing a lot of other things. I spend time with family & friends.

What would you tell someone who wants to get into the radio business? If they’re interested in a station like ours, I tell them they need to be as well rounded as they can be. They need to be a good writer. Whether its writing news, sports, copy to the website … if you’re a good writer, you’re 50% there.

You need to be interested in a lot of things. Local government, the world, sports, news … everyone that’s on air here has done games and has done a talk show. You need to be well read and curious about what’s happening in the world around you. Do that, and you’ll be successful.

I still see young people. I’ve got a young man on staff now that needs some polish … and he’ll be a great broadcaster. I seldom have openings, though. Our Sales Director has been here 20 years, the News Director 18 years. Our afternoon guy just retired after 20+ years. That’s one of the things I take the most pride in. The office manager has been here 20 years and the top sales person 24 years. If I’m not doing anything else right, people like being here because they stay.

Sometimes I’m bothered because we have young people that start here working part time and stick around, but then they move on because I just don’t have many openings.

 

 

Smarts Broadcast System

Sam is a long-time customer of Smarts. His stations have used a Smarts automation system since 1993.

About Henry Mowry

Henry grew up listening to the World's Happiest Broadcasters on WHB/Kansas City. He found his way to Los Angeles, where he did radio promotions for Six Flags Magic Mountain. From there, he had a 22-year run with Radio & Records, doing everything from national radio buys to regional night club promotions to eventually becoming Director of Sales for R&R. After a couple of years working with Radio-Info.com, he became Director of Marketing for Smarts Broadcast Systems.
This entry was posted in Small Market Stories and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply